Black women have served in the U.S. military since the Civil War. However, their unique experiences are often left out of policy discourses and widespread conversations about life in the military—and the quality of healthcare services upon their return home.
Recently, there have been allegations of an unauthorized waiting list that may have been associated with the death of 40 veterans. This has prompted a federal investigation into the treatment of veterans at VA hospitals, resurfacing the longstanding problem of our nation’s failure to uniformly provide adequate healthcare for veterans. Black veterans are no strangers to this discussion—a survey of Black veterans in Boston found that only 15% strongly agree that they were are treated with dignity when seeking healthcare.
Though some Black women have been able to reach powerful ranks that might suggest that structural barriers to the inclusion of Black women in the military are crumbling, modern policies send a different message. As evidenced by the recent military bans on certain hairstyles, there is an overarching climate of bias that can be harmful to Black women. Indeed, the distress experienced by Black females in the military may be a function of their race, ethnicity, gender, class, rank, and/or varying degrees of resilience to bias against any one (or more) of these identities.
Though Black veterans are less likely to be screened for mental health problems, research has found that 43% of African American veterans suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and about 1 in 5 women are shown to experience Military Sexual Trauma (MST). Women of all racial and ethnic affiliations report experiencing sexual harassment at higher rates than their male counterparts. Women in the military are specifically at risk for PTSD, Major Depressive Disorder, Acute Stress Disorder, MST, or other mental and physical health disorders.
A closer look into the specific experiences of Black women in the military will reveal that they are routinely exposed to sexualized harassment, informed largely by the “Jezebel” archetype—the narrow (and racialized) interpretation of Black female sexuality that presents Black women as hypersexual, which increases their risk of sexual exploitation and trauma. Research conducted by NiCole Buchanan and her colleagues at Michigan State University found that Black women in the military, who generally hold lower ranks than their White female counterparts despite having more years of service, are more likely than White women to experience “unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion.”
The racialized nature of sexual violence and harassment inflicted upon Black women in the military can be easily seen as an extension of the stereotypes and memes that guide our popular consciousness on Black female sexuality. Stated simply, Black women—and the rest of society (since the institution of slavery)—have been socialized to see Black women (and girls) as sexual objects. This form of sexual terrorism is present in almost every element of our public culture—from advertising and entertainment to social policy. This idea imposes a tremendous stress on Black women—some of us internalize it and act out in ways that perpetuate the stereotype, while others struggle with defining our sexual identity outside of this oppressive box. However, despite individual efforts to quash the “Jezebel” stereotype, it lives in our public consciousness and certainly in our institutions—the military being no exception.
This is a particular vulnerability that VA hospitals, clinics, and wellness centers need to be mindful of as they seek to provide quality mental and physical health services to veterans. However, there are very few PTSD clinics that focus on women in the U.S., which is problematic given that the absence of gender-responsive services for women can lead to service delivery models (such as placing women in coed therapy sessions) that can be potentially re-traumatizing or negatively impact their healing in other ways.
As the Obama Administration continues its investigation into the alleged mistreatment of veterans in VA hospitals, it should also consider the development of culturally competent gender-responsive services to address the impact of racialized sexual harassment. The failure to do so prevents our nation’s health care continuum for veterans from functioning as inclusively and effectively as possible.
Resources and PTSD Clinics for Female Veterans:
Timberline Knolls (IL)
Women’s Trauma Recovery Program (CA)